Hitting the Rocks: Council Forced to Cut Spending by £1 in every £5
by Pat Dodd Racher
Welsh, trades unions, a sustainable future, and the Heart of Wales railway: they all appear to have weak support among the population of Carmarthenshire. These were among the most strongly supported candidates for budget cuts at a county council seminar yesterday (December 4th). Even if implemented, though, they are just a drop in the ocean – just 1.2% of the possible savings presented.
Seminar participants, drawn from community councils, forums for young people and over-50s, and community groups, were given ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ style keypads to vote on a list of 52 possible and probable cuts. The first cut was in use of the keypads – about half of them did not work, but instead flashed the warning ‘Access Denied’.
Never mind. The 50 or so attendees, in the basement of Carmarthen Library, each had a thick booklet setting out the proposals and with boxes to tick: strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree, or neither agree nor disagree. The event, one of a series, had the dual purpose of funnelling ideas back to council officers, and of spreading among the populace the bad news about coming cuts. The stark options were presented by Chris Moore, head of financial services, and Chris Burns, assistant chief executive.
The proposals on the table totalled £13.889 million. This is just 43% — well under half – of the £33 million to be slashed in the three years 2014-15 to 2016-17. An additional £16 million in management and administration cost savings have been identified, taking total budget savings to around £30 million, leaving a further £3 million to be found. In all, the cuts have to remove £1 in every £5.21 that would otherwise be spent on council services apart from those like Council Tax Benefit payments and the ring-fenced schools budget, those payments over which Carmarthenshire has no control. The cuts will slash non-obligatory spending by 19%, verging on one fifth.
We appear to be saying goodbye to everyday Welsh in Carmarthenshire. We were addressed in English, and questions were in English: one language is cheaper than two. Maybe the only way to reverse this cultural loss now is with a policy of positive discrimination in favour of Welsh-speaking job applicants? Or will the amount of Welsh in daily use be allowed to continue to wither? The latter, I suspect, unless sufficient people talk in Welsh to people outside their immediate circle, on the assumption that they will be understood.
Back to the cuts. Three candidates for cuts exceeding £1 million were put forward – privatising home care for the elderly to save £1.5 million a year, closing two care homes, St Paul’s in Llanelli and either Glanmarlais in Llandybie or Tegfan in Ammanford, to save £1.7 million, and largest of all, removing £3.236 million of the £9.496 million budget for maintaining the county’s roads.
The council calculated that privatised home care will be 25% cheaper that at present. This appals me, because the council’s homecare staff do not have to make a profit for shareholders and are still not at all well-paid. A cut of a quarter when the numbers in need of homecare are rising can only mean a drastic decline in service quality. As for closing care homes, apart from disrupting the lives of residents, that would mean longer waits for residential care, more bed-blocking in hospitals, and a more miserable life for pensioners, especially those without family members able step in to fill the care gap.
Slashing the road maintenance budget by over a third is bad news for road safety, for vehicle longevity, for speedy travel, and potholes are bound to multiply. Yet the potential savings are so great that it is difficult to see the council opting against this charter for broken suspensions and cracked exhaust pipes.
Streets will be dirtier if the planned £777,000 cut in street sweeping, a fall of nearly 40%, goes ahead. This does not help the tourism industry, or indeed local pedestrians. Over £600,000 could be saved by slowing down the repair of broken street lights and by delaying upgrade works, and this plan received slightly more support than opposition.
The other proposals to save £300,000 or more a year all relate broadly to education, except a suggested cut of over three-quarters in the £912,000 budget for day centres for the elderly, in the hope that voluntary organisations would fill the gap.
The education-related proposals include requiring schools to pay for using council-run leisure centres (a £525,000 cost that could be reimbursed, if the schools opted to continue using the centres); additional income of £500,000 by raising charges for school meals faster than inflation; charging young people for transport to post-16 education, to raise £477,000; and slowing the identification of pupils with special needs, with knock-on cuts in numbers of learning support assistants, to save £300,000. These items are not part of the protected spending mandated by the Welsh Government.
The easier, smaller cuts were widely supported by those at the seminar, at least by the half whose keypads worked. Cutting back on Welsh language services by £60,000 of the annual £216,000; saving £85,000 by requiring trades union representatives to carry out union work in their own time, not the council’s; halving the £30,000 ‘sustainable development’ budget; and removing £11,000 in subsidies from the Heart of Wales railway. These sums are small enough to be counteracted, potentially, by other organisations and/or by philanthropists. Opinions were noticeably divided on the largest cuts proposed, such as reducing road maintenance by a third, closing two care homes and privatising domiciliary care.
The Welsh Government provides 79% of the money the council spends. Council tax raises only 21%. A 50% increase in council tax would more or less plug the financial gap, but would be unaffordable for tens of thousands of households across the county, and it is in any case a tax taking no account of ability to pay. A local income tax could be a future possibility, if and when the Welsh Government has the power to levy taxes.
Carmarthenshire has made some much-criticised financial decisions, for example by very generously subsidising the Scarlets rugby club in Llanelli and by committing to rent unnecessary offices in the Eastgate development, also in Llanelli. Projects undertaken just because a grant is available, such as the comprehensive school to replace Llandeilo’s Tregib and Llandovery’s Pantycelyn, are responses to problems that could be addressed in other and possibly more sustainable ways. Now, though, the council is staring over the edge of a financial cliff, and there is no safety net to cushion the fall.
Spending on school education, over 30% of Carmarthenshire’s budget, is regulated by the Welsh Government and so the council’s room for manoeuvre is limited to ‘non educational’ items like transport, meals and slowing down the identification of pupils with special needs, in effect shifting the responsibilities and costs onto families. The rising numbers of infirm elderly require services which become less affordable every year, and so if families and friends do not fill the gaps, being old in Carmarthenshire will be an unhappy prospect. If there is inadequate funding for social services, or to keep the roads mended, what hope for cultural and leisure activities, including support for the Welsh language?
It is a shame that we have to wait until May 2017 before elections to the council, because new thinking is overdue. This begs a question – why are our elected councillors not organising budget cut seminars in every ward? Surely they should be the people with the primary responsibility for finding out what their electors think? At times like these it’s just not enough for them to attend a few meetings and to leave policy creation to the staff officers.
One of the proposals is, in fact, to reduce the number of meetings for councillors, to save £31,000 a year in travel, print and other costs. Accepting that meetings may at present often fail to achieve much, might it not be better to open them up, to allow questions from the public, and to include councillors from across the political spectrum in the tough decision making?
The county council employs about 9,000 people and is the dominant employer in Carmarthenshire. Budget cuts mean job cuts that are likely to mean significantly lower incomes for the affected households, and thus lower demand for local goods and services, risking a spiral of decline unless alternative jobs are created – jobs that need to generates sales revenues if they are to last.
Looking to the future, I would rather turn off the street lights, lower the tropical temperatures in council-run buildings, and stop all of the £4 million expenditure on ‘culture and heritage’, but spend a lot more, not less, on sustainable development projects to help groups and communities to become more self-sufficient with low-impact homes, small-scale wind, water and solar energy ventures, orchards and allotments, artisan industries using local resources like wood, stone, and imagination, and railways — like the Heart of Wales line — relieving strain on the roads.
This approach is not likely to be taken, at least not yet, unfortunately, but whatever the council eventually decides, there’s no escaping that a lot of pain is on the way.